Looking at the lineup of Bonnaroo over the past few years, it seems as if the organizers booked their roster by throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck. Well, this year, everything stuck. On the top two lines of the bill, there’s a Beatle, an Icelandic electronic music goddess, the guy who made Trapped in the Closet, hip-hop’s most infamously disconnected group actually getting their shit together, an EDM titan, two AAA indie rock groups, enough acoustic guitars to make an electronic music devotee keel over, and Tom Petty.
And that’s just the top two lines.
Bonnaroo has always been kind of a hodgepodge, but that’s what makes it stand out from every other festival. (It also has no noise curfew, which always leads to some very interesting late night developments.) There’s no telling what exactly is going to happen (see: Jónsi continuing playing despite breaking a string on the first song of Sigur Rós’ 2008 set, My Morning Jacket’s now-legendary 4+ hour set, any number of the bands who have played into sunrise), but the surprises are half the fun. Whatever happens this weekend at What, Which, This, That, and The Other (Bonnaroo’s oh-so-cleverly named stages), it all starts here:
Aside from seeing a handful of big-ticket bands on the (relative) cheap, inevitably meeting foreigners in the campgrounds, and paying way too much for a slice of pizza, one of the best things (well, maybe not the last one) about music festivals is walking around and discovering new bands. Most festivals put all of their buzz bands on during the early afternoon; Bonnaroo does that too, but also dedicates a whole, headliner-free extra day to (relatively) up-and-coming artists playing in the Farm’s three tents. Sure, there are some kinda big acts here – Father John Misty, Killer Mike, Japandroids – but for those who don’t follow music blogs or listen to awesome radio stations, it’s a day of introductions.
JD McPherson - 6:30 – There were other bands that played before him, but for many, JD McPherson and his band was the start of the weekend. Aside from having the best slicked-back hair of any band all weekend (they must have been taking advantage of all of the Garnier Fructis promotions at the Farm), the Oklahoma rock and roller and his band were tighter and more experienced than a lot of the day’s groups, which made him a perfect choice for his evening timeslot. “Firebug” drew the biggest cheers, but the whole set - which was occasionally co-led by bassist Jimmy Sutton - had the Farm movin’ and shakin’ to the weekend’s first great set.
Ariel Pink - 7:00 – Watching Ariel Pink do his thing onstage as the Tennessee sun sets isn’t most people would expect to see, but it happened on Thursday evening. Although a lot of people were put off by Pink’s relatively challenging performance, but his performance was strangely mesmerizing to the faithful and a few curious passersby. If the goal of only putting lesser-known acts on today was to help them gain traction, Ariel Pink failed miserably. But if his goal was to put on one hell of a unique show at a festival where R. Kelly will play right after
Mumford and Sons Jack Johnson, he was already one of the weekend’s highlights.
HAIM - 7:30 – The Los Angeles sister trio probably had the least amount of available recorded music of any band on Thursday’s bill, but that didn’t stop Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim (and drummer Dash Hutton) from using their full timeslot. After two songs, the band decided to “just jam out”, which would have been an issue if the band wasn’t so locked-in with each other. Quite possibly the best rehearsed band on Thursday, each sister took turns showing off her vocal and instrumental chops, while also showing off their fraternal chops with some friendly (and, occasionally, hilariously vulgar) stage banter. By the time their debut album drops in the fall though, they’re not going to have to rely on jamming much longer.
Django Django - 9:00 – Even though Purity Ring’s hiccupy, seizure-inducing light show is one tent over, Django Django are bringing just as much intensity, and converting more people. It was great to see people who hadn’t heard of the band five minutes before walking over throw down to “Hail Bop”, “WOR”, and “Life’s A Beach”, especially since the band has never played anywhere near Tennessee. “I think we’re going somewhere, Bonnaroo,” said Vincent Neff right before “Cairo”. Neff’s “we” meant the band and the audience, but it would be hard to disagree with him if he was just talking about the band.
Japandroids - 10:00 – Every festival has its share of bands who fall prey to sound issues, and unfortunately, Japandroids were that band on Thursday night. (They also struggled with sound issues at Sasquatch.) It’s doubtful that they cared though, because they wasted no time tearing through most of Celebration Rock to a fervent crowd who shouted every word back at a volume nearly as loud as Brian King’s voice. The lack of a good sound mix definitely hurt the set, but it was more than a little inspiring to see the audience go wild regardless.
Father John Misty - 10:30 – “Hello ‘Banaru.’ How do you feel about being asked how you’re doing once an hour for the last five days?” A little over a year after hitting the road behind Fear Fun, Father John Misty has become a top-notch live performer. Even though he’s toured basically nonstop for the last year, he didn’t seem weary at all on Thursday night, sashaying and jumping around onstage while his band pulled out song after song from Fear Fun and nailed it. “Only Son of the Ladiesman” and “I’m Writing A Novel” were early set peaks, but “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” - probably his biggest song - isn’t just a small indie crossover hit now, it’s an anthem, and it’s Tillman’s rock star moment. When he dropped the mic and silently walked offstage at the song’s conclusion, it was impossible not to see him doing this on a bigger stage in the near future.
Alt-J - 11:30 – There’s no way of telling how many people were at Bonnaroo that night, but it was very possible that every last one of them was at Alt-J’s set. Just like their stage-clogging performance at Sasquatch, the crowd is massive, but the sound in This Tent was vastly improved from Japandroids’ set, so the size of the audience wasn’t an issue. The band barely have enough material to fill an hour, but they kept light on banter and time-fillers nonetheless, serving out An Awesome Wave in strong, muscular slices. They’ll need some more material before they return, but for now, the band did just about everything they could right on Thursday night.
Allen Stone - 12:00 – When Allen Stone played Capitol Hill Block Party last year, the crowd’s reaction was borderline rapturous, and despite going against the last half of Alt-J’s set and playing without a home court advantage, the Seattle singer got the same audience response. Stone’s greatest strength as a performer is that he knows how to work a crowd; he knows when to get them to cheer, to jump, to scream, and knows how to make them do it even when he isn’t asking for it, which is a skill that most of the night’s other artists couldn’t have managed.